From the beginning I found "A Sudden Dawn" a fast-paced and enjoyable story. A map inside the front cover is often a foretaste of adventures through distant times and places, and Goran Powell's book does not disappoint. He has clearly researched his setting, and the details of Bodhidharma's native South India and journey through Tibet to China are lovingly reimagined. As one would expect from an author who is also an experienced martial artist, the depictions of fighting and training - which incidentally are not too many, and by no means limit the appeal of the book to martial arts fans - are vivid and believable. Above all, Powell has built on the few facts known about the legendary Bodhidharma to create a story with sympathetic characters and an engrossing plot.
If that was all this book achieved, it would be worth reading. But along the way Powell, through his characters' dilemmas and arguments, touches on questions of philosophy and morality. The device of a "journey" is often used to portray a character's inner journey in parallel with an outer one. What I found interesting was that here it is not so much the main character Bodhidharma who develops along the route - his progression from warrior, through impatient novice monk, to "bearer of enlightenment" is completed early on in the book - as his various disciples. The book is littered with references to "The Way" as understood by Buddhists. Each of the disciples has their own reason for joining Bodhidharma's journey, and each is travelling towards their own understanding of The Way. Ultimately it is the completion of one disciple's inner journey some time after the arrival at Shaolin that marks the culmination of the story.
In contrast to other monks, who insist on a Way that is peaceful, or contemplative, or ascetic, Bodhidharma argues that there is neither a peaceful nor a violent Way, only The Way, which entails accepting all of reality as it is and acting in accordance with it. Seen in this light, someone who abhors violence can still embrace the martial arts as a means of expressing the nature of the human body and human conflict, just as an artist expresses truths about life through the tools of their art. The first change Bodhidharma makes at Shaolin is to encourage the cooks to take pride in the food they make, demonstrating an appreciation of how ingredients work together. The Way, for him, is to be found not in studying scriptures but in dedicating oneself to practice in a field of one's choosing. There are "no miracles, no bliss, no nirvana" - only the world, the people in it, and the things they choose to do.
While the book is first and foremost an exciting story, and does not attempt to be a "beginners' guide to Zen", it raises interesting questions and kept me thinking for some time after I'd finished reading.